I do keep a spray bottle full of sugar water down by the hives. (It won't rust, so why not?). It has the benefit of keeping the bees from flying, and causes them to lick each other. Not bad, but you have to actually hit them with it, unlike smoke, where they just have to smell it. If you want to drench down all the bees to the point where you're not going to get stung, it's going to take a lotta sugar water! I use it once in a while, but mostly it's just for when I want them to accept foundation, I give the plasticells a couple of sprays.
If you are having troubles using the smoker, it might be because you're not giving the bees enough time.
Remember, the smoke doesn't actually calm the bees. It causes them to gorge themselves on honey, which in turn calms them. If you're not giving the bees a minute to gorge before going into the hive, you're not enjoying the full benefit of using the smoker.